Sometimes, a book jumps into your way at just the right time. I‘ve read about Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree on Goodreads, and decided to try it to get me out of a reading slump. Gladly, I loved everything about it.
It‘s about an orc called Viv, and she‘s had enough of the adventurer life. She‘s worn out, and her back hurts. So after one last job retrieving a fabled artifact, she moves to Thune to open up a coffee shop.
She quickly gathers a lovely cast of characters around her, including:
Cal, a hob carpenter / handyman who helps her renovating
Tandri, a succubus who supports her as a barista (and also in general)
Thimble, a rattkin who turns out to be an amazing baker
Also, there‘s an epic direcat strolling around and protecting the premises.
Let me just say that everything about this book is lovely. There is a strong found family vibe, as Viv is building a new home against all odds. This story gave me all the warm fuzzy feelings.
Keep cinnamon rolls and coffee on hand when you are diving in, though.
Say one thing for TheLadyDuckOfDoom and TheMarquessMagpie, say they enjoy the hell out of a well-written epic fantasy series. And Joe Abercrombie’s First Law series was just that.
We read the first three books as buddyreads, which really takes a lot of determination if you want to pace yourself.
The series starts of with The Blade Itself, in which our illustrous cast of characters is introduced and assembled. Here are some of them:
Logen Ningefingers, also called the Bloody-Nine: a humble northman haunted by his past. In Lady Duck’s estimation, he also suffers from dissociative identity disorder.
Sand dan Glokta, a once praised fencer, for his looks as well as his skill, he was tortured and turned into a cripple when he got captured in war. Now he serves as a torturer and investigator for the Inquisition, which is more of a police institution than religious undertaking in the Kingdom.
Jezal dan Luthar, the rich kid, totally loathesome. What an ass.
The Dogman, a named man from the north, famed for his sense of smell. It feels unlikely, but he really grows on you.
Ferro Maljinn, a former slave, runs on revenge plots alone. She is a force to be reckoned with.
Collem West, an army Major stepping up when things get difficult and dangerous. Don’t worry, he has his faults.
Bayaz, First of the Magi, always with a trick up his sleeve. You never know what’s up with that cheating bastard.
We spent most of the first book getting a glimpse into the lives of these characters. It‘s mainly a setup book and not a ton of stuff happens. But don‘t think that it gets boring for even a bit – we at least follow Glokta uncovering a conspiracy, after all.
Instead of suffering from a case of middle book syndrome, Before They Are Hanged turned out to be a roadtrip book. There are some very interesting character developments, and we get to know the cast a lot better. The brewing conflicts are foreshadowed very reasonably and you smell a war coming. In the 10th anniversary edition, the author’s note tells us that Abercrombie is incredibly proud of this book, and Lady Duck seconds this opinion. The middle book syndrome is expertly circumnavigated, and she laughed at the end of it.
In The Last Argument of Kings, the world is at war. New kings are crowned and need to grow into their roles very quickly. Although, do they really? There’s fighting, blood, and even more fighting. The “backwards” Northmen play quite a big part in the turn of events. The ending leaves some threads dangling, but intentionally so. The books play so well on the common epic fantasy genres, and denying the readers full closure is just another of Abercrombies tricks. Or maybe he planned more books set in this universe all along.
Overall, the series mostly deals with what it means to wield power. Who can be trusted with it? What does having a title really mean? Isn’t everybody (except one… ) just pretending to know what they’re doing and hoping for the best? Another recurring theme twists the fantasy trope of redemption arcs: sometimes, as hard as people try to be better, sometimes they can not.
The writing style was a real treat:
so many unexpected moments of comic relief…
… but still grim and bloody
it changes a bit with the characters (The recurring “Say one thing for Logen Ninefingers…”, “dead body found at the docks” is a recurring imagined newspaper headline in Glokta’s head after he gets into trouble)
some predictable plot twists and turns, but the execution is still great.
The characters feel very real. You see the bad side of every one of them. Not all of them are likeable, but all of them are captivating. I never thought I would root for a crippled torturer, but go Glokta go! Prepare yourself for some very difficult and sad death scenes – but also for a burst of joy when one absolutely loathsome character meets a very satisfying end. While the books are quite “dude-heavy”, the female characters also shine. They are morally grey, scheming and far from your classic damsel in distress.
So, I guess I really need to read all Abercrombie books now. Don’t worry, the next one (Best Served Cold) is already waiting on my shelf. Lady Duck insert: not on my shelves, oh noes. We will need to change that asap (which means summer or later, book buying ban be damned)
5/5 Birdies for each of them – still alive, still alive
Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay was our newest attempt at a Buddyread. First published in 1990, we were a bit stunned that this book is 32 years old, older than me. It is a standalone fantasy novel, and the TheMarquessMagpie recently read a much more recent novel by the same author, A Brightness Long Ago, and really enjoyed it.
Tigana is the magical story of a beleaguered land struggling to be free. It is the tale of a people so cursed by the black sorcery of a cruel despotic king that even the name of their once-beautiful homeland cannot be spoken or remembered…
But years after the devastation, a handful of courageous men and women embark upon a dangerous crusade to overthrow their conquerors and bring back to the dark world the brilliance of a long-lost name…Tigana.
Goodreads blurb, 09.03.2022
So off we went to the Lands of the Palm, modeled after Italy in the Renaissance, where we meet Devin, one of our main Protagonists. Devin is a young singer in a troupe and does not really have any defining character traits, but takes more the role of the observer of the story who gets swept up in the plot. This is where TheMostHonourableHarpyEagle left us, without intriguing characters, the book was too slow for her. And she is not wrong, there does not happen much in the book.
While the prose is certainly beautiful and I have passages that I really liked, the book feels a bit like an ancient Greek tragedy. They go this way, meet this person, then the other. Then there is a woman bent on revenge but instead she falls in love. Torn in two, she tries to find a mystical being for help and a prophecy.
There are some things which really show the age of the book, the casual racism for once, the depiction of women as incapable of controlling their feelings another. Each character feels like a certain stereotype, and a strong, non-male character is missing, at least in my opinion.
Then there is the casual incest which really adds NOTHING to the story. Absolutely nothing. The author has written a really good afterword, but the explanation that in face of war and oppression, people tend to act out in other ways is really not enough for me.
While this was a very slow, flawed read for me, it was not all bad, and I would like to quote a part of the authors afterword here:
Tigana is in good part a novel about memory: the necessity of it, in cultural termns, and the dangers that come when it is too intense.
Well, this was a page turner, although or despite not being as bone chilling as I had expected.
Mattie lives in the woods, with her husband William. When checking the rabbit snares she finds strange bear-like tracks. There's a beast hiding on the mountain.
William is much older than Mattie, very brutal and the reader soon understands that something is not right here.
Mattie remembers impossible bits from her past. Three college students are in the woods tracking the creature. William bought bear traps and grenades to kill the beast.
Any idea how this will end?
The sinister part reminded me of Neville's The Ritual. I was rooting for Mattie, but there were moments when I despised her for being such a wuss, nevertheless I kept turning the pages because I wanted to know whether my prediction of the outcome was right.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
Pandora by Susan Stokes-Chapman
Review based on an ARC provided by the publishers.
Pandora "Dora" Blake's parents were killed in an accident twelve years ago. Her uncle took charge of Dora and of the antiquarian shop Dora's parents built and has nearly run it to the ground. Dora knows her uncle is hiding something and eventually finds Greek antiquities in the cellar. She enlists the help of Edward Lawrence, a book binder and antiquarian scholar, to find out whether the items are genuine. Soon they discover that the large vase Dora found has more in store than helping Edward to achieve an academic future and Dora to restore her parents' shop to its former glory.
Pandora is a historical novel set in Georgian time. It's a mystery novel as much as a historical novel. The writing is good. The descriptions of London and the characters are vivid. The three POV give each of the three characters their own voice.
At times, though, the use of anachronistic words took me out of the story, but that might have been rectified before publishing.
3,5/5 Harpy Eagles
Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge, translated by Jeremy Tiang
In Yo'ang humans and "strange beasts", human-like mythical creatures, live together. Each of the nine interconnecting chapters of the book is dedicated to a different species of "strange beasts". The nameless narrator tells us about the origins, appearances and habits of the different beasts. It was interesting, but the repetitive nature of the stories soon got boring.
It's surrealism, or magical realism.
3/5 Harpy Eagles
Fortune Favours the Dead by Stephen Spotswood
It's the late 1940s. Willowjean Parker ran away with the circus years ago. In New York she comes across the famous detective Lilian Pentecost, who hires her as an assistant.
Fast forward to three years later, Mrs P and Parker are hired to solve a locked room mystery. The widow of a rich industrial magnate was killed after a seance at the family's Halloween party.
The murder could be anyone from the husband's business partner, to the children, the medium present at the seance, to the ghosts of the past.
I liked how Pentecost and Parker faced the usual trials and prejudices of women in that time. It was done well, I never had the impression that the women behaved anachronistically. Pentecost further has to deal with a chronic illness that makes her job very hard at times; from personal experience, I can say that the author depicted Mrs P's problems very accurately.
Books are perfect to travel to different places and different times; I don’t need to tell you this, I know. My recent reading took me to Edinburgh in the 19th century. Both books not only had the setting in common, both books also dealt with the study of the human body and the supernatural. Now that I think of it, both even offered a spot of romance.
The first novel was Anatomy by Dana Schwartz. The cover hooked me, the blurb got me:
Hazel Sinnett is a lady who wants to be a surgeon more than she wants to marry.
Jack Currer is a resurrection man who’s just trying to survive in a city where it’s too easy to die.
When the two of them have a chance encounter outside the Edinburgh Anatomist’s Society, Hazel thinks nothing of it at first. But after she gets kicked out of renowned surgeon Dr. Beecham’s lectures for being the wrong gender, she realizes that her new acquaintance might be more helpful than she first thought. Because Hazel has made a deal with Dr. Beecham: if she can pass the medical examination on her own, the university will allow her to enroll. Without official lessons, though, Hazel will need more than just her books – she’ll need bodies to study, corpses to dissect.
Lucky that she’s made the acquaintance of someone who digs them up for a living, then.
But Jack has his own problems: strange men have been seen skulking around cemeteries, his friends are disappearing off the streets. Hazel and Jack work together to uncover the secrets buried not just in unmarked graves, but in the very heart of Edinburgh society.
Well, this should have been my jam – apart from it being a YA novel: Gothic tale, a mystery, a romance. It wasn’t. But it sure has a great cover.
It’s the autumn of 1817, our teenage heroine, Hazel, is a smart red-head who lives in a castle. She’s read every medical book in her father’s library and knows how to distinguish the humerus from the femur, but doesn’t know that becoming a female physician – that is a woman who’s a medical professional – is not in her future. And no, before you think something along the lines of, but this girl will use her strong will to show the patriarchy what’s what, forget it. She’s the kind of girl who’s flabbergasted when she find out that her future husband will determine whether she might practice medicine, given that she first has to be allowed to study and pass the exam. Basically, we have a 21st century girl in a 19th century setting.
Jack is a dull character. He snatches bodies out of graves and sells them to anatomists. He has a crush on an actress. He snatches bodies out of graves… Oh, I said that already. Well, you get the picture.
The pacing of the novel is off. The blurb is a summary of the first 40% of the book. The mystery was a no show until about 75%. Then we get the story going, wrapped up, and a potential sequel hinted at in the remaining quarter.
While I was waiting for the (not really baffling) mystery, I realised a lot of inconsistencies with the time and place of the story: Word of mouth goes round about a teenager performing medical procedures alone in her house – but no authority cares. A pregnant woman in labour is walking for hours to get to Hazel instead of finding a midwife near her. A policeman treating Hazel like he has no care in the world about her socially higher standing. Anachronistic language and no distinction in speech between the different social classes. I could continue. There was so much more. Just thinking Edinburgh, late September, sunrise and sunset times, and my hackles rise again. Dear author, how much research did you really put into this book?
One more thing about the romance: Hazel and Jack hiding in the grave of a mutilated body and kissing and falling asleep with said body only feet away – so romantic.
1/5 Harpy Eagles
The second novel that brought me to Edinburgh was set at the other end of the century. It’s Craig Russell’s Hyde, a retelling of the Robert Louis Stevenson story.
Edward Hyde has a strange gift-or a curse-he keeps secret from all but his physician. He experiences two realities, one real, the other a dreamworld state brought on by a neurological condition.
When murders in Victorian Edinburgh echo the ancient Celtic threefold death ritual, Captain Edward Hyde hunts for those responsible. In the process he becomes entangled in a web of Celticist occultism and dark scheming by powerful figures. The answers are there to be found, not just in the real world but in the sinister symbolism of Edward Hyde’s otherworld.
He must find the killer, or lose his mind.
A dark tale. One that inspires Hyde’s friend . . . Robert Louis Stevenson.
It is always a problem for me to write a long review about a book that I enjoyed.
Hyde is a dark-ish character. He’s not the monster Stevenson painted, but works for the Edinburgh police force. He’s been hiding his episodes since his childhood, recently they have become more severe. So severe, that Hyde fears he might be the brutal killer himself. Coming out of his “spells,” he finds himself close to the murder victims too often for it to be coincidence.
The occult dark part was a tiny bit predictable for me. I have read similar stories and knew who the puppet master pulling the strings was early on. This did not diminish my enjoyment of the story, though.
Russell played with the original duality of Stevenson’s story, but gave it a different twist. Setting, characters and plot development made sense. Add a few cameos and they made me overlook the few inconsistencies.
The Counterclockwise Heart is a middle-grade fantasy by Brian Farrey, published by Algonquin Young Readers on 01 February 2022.
Short summary provided by the publishers:
Tick . . . tick . . . tick . . .
Time is running out in the empire of Rheinvelt.
The sudden appearance of a strange and frightening statue foretells darkness. The Hierophants—magic users of the highest order—have fled the land. And the shadowy beasts of the nearby Hinterlands are gathering near the borders, preparing for an attack.
Young Prince Alphonsus is sent by his mother, the Empress Sabine, to reassure the people while she works to quell the threat of war. But Alphonsus has other problems on his mind, including a great secret: He has a clock in his chest where his heart should be—and it’s begun to run backwards, counting down to his unknown fate.
Searching for answers about the clock, Alphonsus meets Esme, a Hierophant girl who has returned to the empire in search of a sorceress known as the Nachtfrau. When riddles from their shared past threaten the future of the empire, Alphonsus and Esme must learn to trust each other and work together to save it—or see the destruction of everything they both love.
The ARC for this book was offered to me, with the words:
Perfect for fans of Lalani of the Distant Sea by Erin Entrada Kelly and The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill, THE COUNTERCLOCKWISE HEART demonstrates that, in the words of Esme, “stupid compassion must be contagious.”
Perfect might be overstretching it, but I enjoyed my time with the book, once I sat down and read it. (My fault, I kept pushing the book back onto the virtual #MountARC.) It’s definitely perfect for the kind of middle-grade reader who likes to read more mature books and can handle darker topics of death, grief, violence; those are done gracefully not gory and too dark.
Although I am a native of German, I actually struggled with the German words within the story. They pulled me out of the flow of the story more often than I liked. This might be a problem for younger readers, too. Even more so, since most of the words are not explained or translated. Young readers might not bother about the hidden meaning of those words, but I was wondering what Germanic folklore exactly Farrey was hinting at. So I checked the word “Nachtfrau” (night woman), for example. It’s been out of use for a long time, and I was only vaguely familiar with the term. It used to refer to a female ghost-like creature that was supposed to drain the blood from children’s bodies; a bo(o)geyman story told to children to make them behave well. The Nachtfrau in The Counterclockwise Heart isn’t a ghost, nor does she drink children’s blood, nevertheless she is a figure people are afraid of.
My favourite character is Esme. She’s strong. She was brought up in a small community of Hierophants in the North who blames the Nachtfrau for their problems. Despite having been told to loathe the sorceress, Esme is strong enough to trust her own instincts. She weighs what she learned growing up against what she learned during her travels. She uses her brain and heart to determine whether what she had been told is actually true, and makes an informed decision based on facts, rather than ‘fiction’.
The magic system Farrey came up with is wonderful. It’s a system of balance: if you use energy for your spell that means you have to give back something. Some sort of energy conservation. This way magic actually added to the story, since it couldn’t be used as a panacea for all sorts of problems; using magic carelessly might cause more trouble.
A good middle-grade novel that, since that’s the one I read and liked, fans of Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon will certainly enjoy.
3/5 Harpy Eagles (or Goodreads stars)
About the author:
Brian Farrey is the author of The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse, winner of the 2017 Minnesota Book Award, and the Stonewall honor book With or Without You. He lives in Minnesota with his husband and their sweet but occasionally evil cats. You can find him online at brianfarreybooks.com and on Twitter: @BrianFarrey.
A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the books that has been sitting on my shelves for some time. Patiently waiting. Or more likely silently judging me. Like most of its kind, it turned out to be a “Why did I wait so long” kind of book.
Set in a fantasy version of Renaissance Italy, it is alive with really effortless world building. Because it does not hide the fact that it is kind of Italy but different, everything already feels kind of familiar when you enter the story.
It boasts a big cast of characters, changing perspectives frequently. Sometimes storytelling like this can really annoy me, but in this case it made every aspect more interesting. While parts of the story are told by a first person narrator, he is not necessarily the main character of the story. I’m not even sure there is one. Instead, complex political and personal relationships take the main role.
The writing style was compelling, and at times even a bit self-aware. It felt like the author was winking at you, right before dismantling typical storytelling tropes.
Ultimately, this is a book about the ways people both glorious and seemingly unimportant can shape history. Its place is somewhere between fantasy and historical fiction. But the fantasy elements are more an underlying feeling than, you know, dragons. It still scratches the high fantasy itch. With this book, Guy Gavriel Kay has immediately become an author I need to read more of. Seems like historical fantasy, if we want to call it that, is right in my wheelhouse.
Fifty Words for Snow by Nancy Campbell, published 5 November, 2020.
This is a wonderful non-fiction book that you can dip in to at a whim.
I was surprised to see not only words from snow-rich areas, but also words and stories relating to snow from areas with warm climate throughout most of the year.
This book is a gem! I wish it had been longer.
4/5 Harpy Eagles
Sherlock Holmes & the Christmas Demon by James Lovegrove, published 22 October, 2019.
A rather festive Sherlock story.
Asked to help a young lady to proof her sanity, Holmes and Watson travel to Yorkshire mere days before Christmas. Needless to say, Holmes cracks the case, he always does.
I liked the story. Will certainly (eventually) read the other books in the series.
4/5 Harpy Eagles
The Bone Shard Emperor by Andrea Stewart, published 23 November, 2021.
Middle Book Syndrome?
It just didn't click with me.
The story had more world-building than the first book. Though Stewart's acclaimed attention to detail was at the loss of character and plot development.
In my opinion - without book three out there yet - this trilogy might have worked better as a duology.
2/5 Harpy Eagles
Empire of the Vampire by Jay Kristoff, published 7 September, 2021.
And that's a wrap - I'm hereby declaring I am no longer the designated audience for Mr Kristoff's work.
I know that a lot of people love his work and this book in particular, but I just couldn't finish it. The interview style didn't work for me. I was missing the plot. Then there was homophobia, which was overcome by an f/f romance including a voyeuristic sex scene. There was underage sex, very explicit underage sex, which got my hackles up, but that might just be me.
Add frat boy banter between hardcore fighters and period-jokes, and I am out.
Because I have gotten extremely bad at writing reviews, I’ll try something different and do a bunch of shorter ones to sum up my reading month.
Race to the South Pole by Roald Amundsen
Sadly, I only read an abbreviated German translation. But nonetheless, this was very interesting. Especially since I visited the Fram museum in Oslo two years ago, so I stood aboard the polar ship Amundsen used to reach the South Pole. Amundsen’s writing is captivating, and everything he and his team experienced just amazed me. A minor content warning here: don’t get attached to the dogs.
4 / 5 Magpies
The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman
This was really just a lot of fun, especially if you are into “real” mountaineering books. With the aim to put someone on the top of the titular Rum Doodle, our main character Binder puts together an expedition team. From the constantly ill Dr. Prone to the navigator Jungle who even gets lost on his way to the first planning meeting in Britain, all characters are perfectly named and just ridiculous. Together with 3000 porters (yes, the number is correct), they set out and everything that can go wrong, will go wrong. The audiobook was fantastic as a palate cleanser. And just for your information, according to experts champagne can now be considered medicine. You’re welcome.
4 / 5 Magpies
Medea by Christa Wolf
It feels like lately we’ve been spoiled with retellings of Greek myths. And while most of you probably heard of the Madeline Miller books, few will know about Christa Wolf. Published in 1996, Medea tells the titular character’s story from multiple perspectives, shining a different light on the story with each new monologue. It’s quite literary but still fascinating that way, and her take on Kassandra’s story is already waiting on my shelves.
4 / 5 Magpies
The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell
Ever wondered what it’s like to own a bookstore? A peek into Shaun Bythell’s diary will give you a good idea. The underlying tone is that customers are mostly quite annoying, and Amazon is out to get us all. I think there is some truth in both points. The writing is entertaining, and it worked really well as a bedside book because reading more than a couple of entries in a row might get repetitive.
3 / 5 Magpies for solid entertainment without any surprises
The Mysterious Study of Doctor Sex by Tamysn Muir
This is a short story set in the Sixth House of Tamysn Muir’s Locked Tomb series. You can read it for free here. Having read both Gideon and Harrow the Ninth, it was fun to be back in the world and also to have a glimpse into the Sixth house. But without prior knowledge from the two full-length novels, this must be an extremely confusing story. And yes, you are most welcome to snicker at the name of the doctor, as are our two 13-year-old protagonists Palamedes and Camilla.
4 / 5 Magpies
The Annual Migration of Clouds by Premee Mohamed
This dystopian novella started off with a Chosen One storyline, but didn’t go there all the way. Instead we spend our time with the main character (and her fungi parasite) as she ponders whether or not to leave her mother behind to make something out of her life. She reaches a decision in the end, but somehow all this buildup feels anticlimactic as this is the point where the story stops. Maybe this would have worked better for me if it was instalment 0.5 of a series instead of a standalone.
3 / 5 Magpies for fungi fun
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
After reading If It Bleeds and The Outsider, I decided to finally finish the Bill Hodges trilogy. Or at least pick up book two, for now. It was a solid King novel – some blood, some suspense, greate characters. According to Goodreads, I read the first book in 2017, so I was really glad that it didn’t matter too much. Or at least I remembered enough to get along.
4 / 5 Magpies
Judge Dee and the Three Deaths of Count Werdenfels by Lavie Tidhar
This is the second of the Judge Dee short stories, it can be read for free here. Apparently there is a third one out already, so I’ll have to get to that soon. Because it’s a short story, I’m not going to tell you much about it. You’ll just have to trust me that it’s worth your time.
The Octunnumi. Fosbit Files Prologue by Trevor Alan Foris (pseud.) published March 2020. You might remember me mentioning this book back in April. If I remember correctly, I wrote that I had no idea what I was in for and that I applauded the people behind it for their marketing strategy.
The book started off with an action scene, which was intriguing, but at the same time off-putting. Intriguing, should be obvious, you start a book right in the middle of a magical fight and you just want to know what this is about. Off-putting, the two 18 year old MCs are the dog’s bollocks and even if defeated by a bunch of kids, they believe themselves to be superior to everyone around them.
As I read on, this teenaged, hormone riddled, believed superiority of the MCs started to grate. Add to it a story that has virtually no plot, or plot that is drowning in the MCs egos and the world-building, and you know why I had a hard time reading.
Speaking of world-building, the setting is steam-punkish; a bit like Carnival Row. Don’t ask me for details though, because it was convoluted with invented words and concepts that even the added dictionary and pronunciation guide didn’t help with. At page 55 I still didn’t have any idea what the story was supposed to be about, and frankly didn’t care.